Being a Game Master can be trying at times. You set something up, which you find awesome and clever, but your players simply outsmart you. What to do? Should you play along and reward clever thinking, or do you best to thwart their plans?
When I was starting out and trying my hand at being a game master, I poured over Dungeon, Dragon and other roleplaying magazines, not to mention guides for game masters from many different games, to get a better understanding of how the best game masters run their games.
The internet has allowed me to dig even deeper into this, watching online shows with game run by super-star game masters, listening to many different podcasts or reading blogs. Some advice I find very useful, I’ve picked up many things and, of course, some I’ve learnt by doing.
Despite all that, despite the plethora of informative Youtube videos, blogs devoted to game mastering and many good books on the subject, there’s one thing though that I run into every now and then. It’s the notion that somehow it is the game master‘s role to thwart or ruin the players’ plans.
Thinking outside the box
One thing I like to do when I create modules and narratives for my players, is to create encounters or scenes where the players need to be creative and think outside the box. Recently I wrote a short 5e module for 1st level characters where the main antagonist is a CR3 were-creature, that is immune to nonmagical or non-silvered piercing, slashing or bludgeoning damage.
Since the player characters are at 1st level and have a very limited access to magical or silvered weapons, this requires the players to become creative, if they wish to solve the problem posed by the narrative. When I have run the module, groups have come up with many different solutions, most of which I have liked and have far surpassed my own imagination.
Of course, a group that tries to fight the creature head on, without any regard of the creatures abilities or immunities, will quickly meet its doom. But this encourages problem solving and team work, making the player characters rely on more than just a great character build.
Good planning and preparation
The other night I was playing with one of my regular groups, where we were discussing and planning our next steps. One of my fellow players said, that despite all our planning, everything seemed to go haywire the moment we step into the dungeon.
As much as I like to deal with plans going wrong, I also like it, as a game master, to see when the players have planned something really well and things play mostly out as they had prepared for. When you see yourself, when you are in the role of game master, as an adversary of the players, trying to thwart their every plan, then things tend to play out the same, i.e. the shit hits the fan and everyone starts to improvise.
Sometimes players come up with great plans, where they outsmart the monsters and bad guys. When the players have decided how they wish to solve a certain problem I let the dice fall where they may.
Reward clever thinking
I think perhaps the best advice I can give young game masters is to be a part of the group, be your player characters biggest fan and reward clever thinking. By taking part and not seeing yourself as an adversary of the players, you will feel their joy and pride when they solve difficult problems.
When your players come up with a brilliant plan, especially when fighting monsters that are not as clever, let the dice decide if their plan works or not. Going back to the problem posed in the short 5e module, a group of players might wish to set a trap for the were-creature or use fire and spells to fight it. And why shouldn’t it work?
The monsters and bad guys in most cases do not know what the player characters are thinking or planning, and when we, as game masters, use what we know as a monster knowledge, we are just as guilty of meta-gaming as a player using their knowledge of the monsters vulnerabilities in character.
Play along and be creative
By playing along with your players, by letting the dice decide if everything goes as they planned, you help the players feel like that their player characters‘ actions and preparation matters and makes a difference.
By posing different problems, that require the players to become creative, the player characters to use their abilities, spells and skills in a new or different way, the chances are that you make every character and player account and partake in solving the problem.
While some problems might be solved with your everyday sword and sorcery, other problems should be solved with teamwork, creativity and cleverness. Then, when you combine the two, you have a group that can take on very hard opponents.
It’s your game
Of course, to each its own and you need to find a balance in the two. Some players really like problem solving, to wrap their brains around how a group of 1st level characters can take on a creature that is immune to their swords and axes. Other players like to have their characters put up against many different creatures so they can test their characters mettle.
You need to find the balance in your group. But remember, don’t decide for the players how they should tackle of solve a problem, and reward their clever thinking.